Friday, April 10, 2015

The Story Is Dead, Long Live The Story!

The word out there—at least according to The Economist Group—is that “smart is the new cool”. John Parker of Intelligent Life (sister magazine to The Economist) posits that, “in its appetite for culture, the world is wising up more than it is dumbing down.” Parker suggests in his article “The Age of Mass Intelligence” (Intelligent Life, 2008) that this apparent increase in the “mass intelligent” can be seen in the growing appeal of museums, blockbuster exhibitions, literary festivals, and operas. What he fails to mention is how the increased sales of good literature translate into actual reading and synthesis.
According to Susan Jacoby, scholar and author of The Age of American Unreason, Parker’s article exemplifies a culture-as-commodity perspective: “If we are going to more literary festivals graced with celebrities and greased with abundant alcohol, if we are spending freely in the museum shops of world capitals and if we are willing to give Anna Karenina a try because Oprah Winfrey has conferred her imprimatur on Tolstoy and his doomed heroine, why, we must be getting smarter.” Ultimately, adds Jacoby,It is not a question of whether people read Dickens and Tolstoy, as opposed to Dan Brown and Barbara Cartland, but whether they read anything longer than the text bites that constitute "reading" on the web. I place the word in quotation marks because most of us are engaged online not in uninterrupted traditional reading but in a vulture-like swoop to gather tidbits of information.” Jacoby describes Parker’s phrase, “appetite for culture”, as not only allegorical but as symptomatic of a growing culture of addictions. Culture commoditized; something to be consumed, digested and excreted as opposed to experienced, processed and enlightened by.
“The defining phenomenon of our society during the past three decades has been the triumph of video over print culture in general, and of shorter blocks of text over longer, reflective articles. This process began in old-fashioned print media and has reached its apotheosis on the Internet,” says Jacoby.
Evidence undeniably shows that more people are being exposed to aspects of culture. Computers and now smartphones have created an “instantly accessible” information-rich society.  Eighty-five percent of young adults are smartphone owners, who use their mobile devices in a host of information seeking and transaction. A majority of smartphone owners use their phone to follow breaking news and share local events—as they happen. Buckminster Fuller observed that human knowledge doubled every century until 1900; by the end of World War II it was doubling every 25 years. It now doubles every 13 months.
Does this reflect a genuine rise in “mass intelligence” or does it simply demonstrate better marketing and an improvement by society in absorbing packaged information?

Mass Intelligent TV and the Age of the Disposable Hero (with apologies to those of you who
currently enjoy Game of Thrones)
Like a gestalt barometer of a culture, the story narrative reflects upon and expresses humanity’s artistic soul. The stories of a culture convey its values and qualities. And, ultimately, they carry a culture through its own evolution.
Emily Gardner of the Economist Group contends that HBO’s immensely popular medieval fantasy Game of Thrones, with its complex character plotlines, intrigue, and elegant world-building, exemplifies a rising “mass intelligent”, coined by Economist CEO Andrew Rashbass to describe a rise in the ‘nerdy’, smarter more discerning TV viewer.  Granted, the TV series, based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy/horror book series A Song of Ice and Fire, contains intelligent characters with depth (superbly played by an accomplished cast), and some of the best world-building ever shown on TV. However, Game of Thrones also drowns these with copious graphic scenes of mutilations, dismemberments, flailing, crucifixions, castrations, beheadings and random axes in heads—not to mention ceremonious displays of these various parts. The script, though intelligent at times, is fraught with misanthropic voyeurism that borders on sociopathic. Heroes and villains alike are unceremoniously tortured, flayed alive, dismembered and worse—with no recourse for transcendence or redemption.
The producers defend the graphic brutality of Game of Thrones with the assertion that it is not a Disneyesque fairytale version of the world; rather, they meant to capture the gritty reality of the world. however, as Internet commenter Todd Geist wrote, “Game of Thrones is very compelling. But so is a train wreck.”
Good fiction—unlike a reality show—tells a purposeful story with fictional characters who play a purposeful role—usually in a journey of change and a story arc based on a meaningful theme. This doesn’t have to entail a happy ending, but it does include meaning and fulfillment—even if only for its audience. Without a meaningful arc, a character (and its empathizing viewer) remains unfulfilled. When too many heroic characters are subjected to such an abrupt ending (with their arc unfulfilled), the viewer will distrust the narrative and distance herself. Reluctant to invest in any heroic character, she becomes less story-participant and more distant-onlooker. The narrative arc, once collapsed, naturally gives way to the thrill-seeking pattern of the addict, anticipating the next thrill. Moreover, when theme-carrying characters fail to prevail, this puts into question the very theme they carry, further disassociating the viewer. This is best represented by the Stark family of Winterfell, who are all but destroyed by the second season of the show.

According to Tom Gualtieri of Salon, in the land of Westeros naivety is punished and cunning is more valuable than honor. “The Red Wedding, like so much that happens to the Starks, makes integrity seem like naiveté,” says Gualtieri. “The Starks’ belief in honor is a noble trait which impairs their judgment, blinding them to the treachery of others.” Gualtieri’s cynical assessment demonstrates how Game of Thrones has strayed from its initial story promise by making its theme-carrying heroes disposable.
With Season Five of Game of Thrones poised to simulcast to 170 countries on April 12, news feeds scramble with teasers to whet the unruly addiction of fans, gripped by the frenzy of the “game”.
Game of Thrones may indeed epitomize the concept of a rising “mass intelligence” with its intriguing, compact bite-sized subplots and disposable heroes. The “mass intelligent” culture prizes information over understanding and knowledge over wisdom. We empower our smartphones with an attention we fail to bestow on our friends. We are a sensory-deprived culture, addicted to piece-meal thrills and sensationalism to carry us through our otherwise meaningless days. We obsess over but dare not empathize with the disposable heroes of our stories. Our TV programs increasingly feature the gritty anti-hero (or even villain) as main protagonist. A growing discussion among those who study story challenges the Jungian-Campbell archetypal narrative of change and transcendence and favors alternative plot structures with no hero, no goals, and no achievement. “Reality shows” and fiction narrative increasingly blur as we enter the ‘zero narrative’ “Age of Mass Intelligence”.

The hero is dead, long live the hero! 



Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Nina Teaching SF Writing Course at George Brown College Spring 2015

I'm back at George Brown College, teaching my 12-week long writing course on how to write science fiction. "Creating Science Fiction" is now part of George Brown's Creative Writing Certificate.

The course starts April and runs until June-end.


Called “Creating Science Fiction”, the course runs Wednesday nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting April 8th through to June 24th and costs $278.
Meant for both beginning writers and those already published, the 12-week course is run like a workshop with student input and feedback on student’s WIPs. Munteanu explores with students the essential tools used in the SF genre (including world building, research and plot approaches). “Students will work toward a publishable original piece by learning to generate and follow through with premise, idea and theme,” says Munteanu.

George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Interview with Nina Munteanu on Fantasy Fiction Focus with Simon Rose

I participated recently in an interview with Simon Rose, author and host of Fantasy Fiction Focus, in which we discussed eco-fiction, emerging trends in science fiction, the changing publishing industry, and what it all means for new writers...like how to promote yourself and your book, branding, and other aspects of being a writer


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Hubble Captures Jupiter’s Great Entourage of Moons

Jupiter and its Entourage of Moons
In anticipation of watching the new release of the science fiction/fantasy thriller Jupiter Ascending this weekend, I ran across this recent February 7 2015 article on Bad Astronomy, by author and astronomer Phil Plait.

Jupiter is approaching opposition (when it’s opposite in the sky from the Sun), which means it’s as close to Earth as it gets for the year, Plait tells us. So, now is the time to observe it! Of course; I get two Jupiters in one month! In his article Plait gives good instructions on how to find and watch Jupiter (the planet, that is) if you have a telescope or even binoculars.

On January 24, 2015, says Plait, three of Jupiter’s largest moons crossed directly in front of Jupiter’s face at the same time. “This is called a triple transit, and it’s a relatively rare event,” writes Plait. Of course, the Hubble Space Telescope was there to take the most awesome shots of this phenomenon.

The image depicted here clearly shows the yellowish volcanic Io in the upper right. Europa is on the
Jupiter Ascending motion picture
lower left and Callisto to its upper right (Ganymede, the fourth of the larger moons, is not in the picture). The moons’ shadows are clearly cast on Jupiter’s massive streaked face of swirling hydrogen, helium, methane, water vapor, ammonia and silicon-based compounds. Traces of carbon, ethane, hydrogen sulfide, neon, oxygen, phosphine and sulfur, benzene, and hydrocarbons exist in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Its outermost layer contains frozen ammonia crystals.

Plait explains how studying the positions of the shadows shows the relative orbital distances of the moons around Jupiter. Europa with its ice-covered liquid ocean, for instance has a much closer orbit to Jupiter than Callisto.

Jupiter's turbulent storms seen from Voyager 1
The dark belts and light streaks of Jupiter are a spinning highway of turbulent atmospheric gases circling the planet in opposite directions. You can see the turbulent swirling vortices at their boundaries, where the to and fro meet.

Plait shows a spectacular video of the triple transit over Jupiter’s spinning face. Jupiter’s rotation is the fastest of all the Solar System’s planets, taking less than 10 hours for this gas giant to spin once. Plait noted the different orbiting speeds of Europa’s rapid and Callisto’s more languid orbits.

Jupiter has dozens of moons; thirty seven discovered so far. Astronomers have classified them into two major groups: the regular moons with nearly circular orbits near the plane of Jupiter (believed to have formed with Jupiter); and irregular moons with elliptical and inclined orbits (believed to be captured asteroids or their fragments). Hubble’s video captured two of these lumpy rocks. One, called Amalthea, is about 250 km along its long axis. Thebe is about 100 km across. Amalthea was the first moon of Jupiter discovered since Galileo spotted the big four; it was found in 1892. Thebe was discovered when Voyager 1 flew past it in 1979.

In a few days, after I’ve seen the film, I’ll let you know which “Jupiter” is more fascinating.


Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.